The Paris-based multinational Alcatel-Lucent has denied accusations that it was assisting the Burmese junta with telecommunications equipment used to monitor phone calls.
The denial comes after several NGO’s, including media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), sent a letter to the company asking for clarification about the system and effectively accusing them of cooperating with the military government to spy on its own people.
Alcatel, which employs some 80,000 people worldwide, is not hampered by European or US sanctions mainly because its operations in Burma, as well as North Korea, are run through an Asia subsidiary, Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell (ASB).
The denial, which was published on 26 March, states that “there’s no truth in the suggestion that the company provided or installed any dedicated solution to Myanmar [Burma] for monitoring voice calls or filtering Internet”.
The use of the word ‘dedicated’ has raised eyebrows as it leaves open the possibility that the company installed a system which can perform such tasks but is not devoted to that sole purpose.
“There is no doubt that Alcatel is using false language,” said Isabelle Dubuis of the Paris-based Info Birmanie, a signatory to the letter. She added that “It’s really clear that [Alcatel] works with the Burmese junta and that these materials will be used to implement a surveillance system.”
The project, which is being done for Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), is funded by the Chinese government and aims to provide “the country with a much-needed basic telecom infrastructure,” according to Alcatel’s official response.
Alcatel will also be part of the Yadanabon ‘cyber city’, which is 67 kilometers from Mandalay and close to the government’s Defence Services Academy, Burma’s premier military training school.
The letter also claims that the purpose of Yadanabon “is to centralise the [country’s] entire electronic communications” and “centralise all the means of communication and hence to monitor or censor them”.
The project was instigated in 2006 as part of a plan towards connectivity in the Greater Mekong Sub region. In the same year, the director of the sanctions-busting US oil giant Chevron, Linnet F. Deily, joined the board of Alcatel.
She had also, up until 2005, served as the US ambassador to the World Trade Organisation and sat on several other boards of big companies and bodies, including a role as the deputy to the US Trade Representative.
Deily joined Chevron, America’s second largest oil company, in 2005; the same year that it brought fellow oil company Unocal. Unocal had dealings with the Burmese junta through their considerable assets in the mineral sector and had been taken to court in the US in the 1990s for alleged human rights abuses. The case was eventually settled out of court.
She stayed on the board of Alcatel until 2008, and in her first year with the company was ‘compensated’ with over €130,000, whilst for her membership of Chevron’s ‘audit committee’ she has received around $250,000 per year. She is now based in Texas and is a personal acquaintance of former US president George W. Bush.
The letter from the NGO meanwhile adds that Alcatel has in the past built similar systems for the Chinese government.
“You have provided Chinese authorities with an Integrated Lawful Intercept, an integrated interception system that enables listening and monitoring of all electronic communications,” the letter says. “Are you sure that your Chinese subsidiary does not have this device in the scope of the Burmese military? That would mean even more bloggers in prison and a gross infringement of human rights.”
Alcatel suggests in its press release that greater penetration of mobile and internet services will help the country’s “capacity to evolve to democracy”, adding that Burma “has only 385,000 fixed subscribers and 400,000 mobile subscribers for a population of more than 56 million people”.
Dubuis said however that “of course the access to the internet and other communication devices is important for the Burmese people but we believe that equipment provided by Alcatel is not meant for the Burmese people or their welfare”.
Earlier this month, RSF stated in a report that the Burmese junta was “determined to use any means necessary to prevent their citizens from having access to the Internet”, adding that the military government was an ‘enemy of the internet’ for its repressive practices and censorship in the country.